With each passing year we see more documentaries about films and filmmakers. Some get only a passing nod while others are embraced by critics and buffs alike. At this year’s Telluride Film Festival a number of such docs stood out. I had the pleasure of interviewing director Peter Medak about his remarkable film The Ghost of Peter Sellers, in which the Hungarian-born filmmaker travels back 45 years to explore what went wrong with a seemingly sure-fire project proposed by Sellers. He and longtime Goon Show pal Spike Milligan wrote Ghost in the Noonday Sun but the filming was an absolute disaster.
Why would a man who has worked successfully in film and television all these years (with some great ones like The Ruling Class to his credit) choose to revisit the greatest nightmare of his career? The film answers this question, but it boils down to this: Ghost created a wound in Medak that has never healed.In spite of all the trouble Sellers caused, Medak still loves and admires him and wanted to tell this story. This fascinating feature documentary deserves a home like TCM to reach its target audience.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché ought to be mandatory viewing for every film student and filmmaker. Director and co-writer Pamela B. Green has labored for a decade piecing this story together, trying to understand why one of the preeminent pioneers of cinema has been so ignored. (Part of the answer is that she was deliberately left out of official chronicles by her male superiors a hundred years ago!) Guy-Blaché’s saga is staggering, and well told by narrator Jodie Foster. She was present when the Lumière Brothers first projected their images of workers leaving a factory in 1895. She was then a secretary to French producer Leon Gaumont, who succumbed to her pleadings and allowed her to create the company’s first “story films.” There was no holding her back, and before long she was in America (with her husband Herbert Blaché) running her own studio, Solax, in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She worked with actors, writers, cameraman, and art directors; she experimented with color and sound. With such a promising start, why did she depart the movie business? Therein lies the tale—and what a tale it is. Green offers us a lively, entertaining and visually appealing film to help paint her picture. Precious interviews with Guy-Blaché taken in later years are especially revealing. Anything but a dry history lesson. Be Natural does nothing less than demand a complete reexamination of early film history. I wish this movie a long life in every medium.
Orson Welles is an inexhaustible subject and there were three films showing in tandem with his long-awaited final feature The Other Side of the Wind. I missed Morgan Neville’s They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, but did see Mark Cousins’ interesting but draggy The Eyes of Orson Welles, in which Beatrice Welles gives him access to the filmmaker’s little-seen artwork, covering many decades. Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern’s A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making is an excellent chronicle of how they and a loyal team of Wellesians overcame one obstacle after another to piece his last feature film together. Netflix is releasing the feature this fall and I trust they will make this companion piece available as well.
Hal is Amy Scott’s first feature documentary but you’d never know it: she chose a worthy subject in director Hal Ashby and discovered that people who knew him were eager to talk about him on-camera. Among the starry roster: Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Louis Gossett, Jr., Dustin Hoffman, Rosanna Arquette, Haskell Wexler, and his mentor Norman Jewison. There are also a number of contemporary filmmakers who were influenced by his work, from Harold and Maude to Being There: the eloquent Alexander Payne, Allison Anders, David O. Russell, and Judd Apatow. His estate also provided access to home movies, audio tapes of seminars he held, and a plethora of still images. The result is a compelling portrait of an idealist and dreamer who also harbored a self-destructive streak. It’s an illuminating if bittersweet portrait that film buffs should make every effort to see. Oscilloscope studios is releasing it theatrically this month; it opens at the NuArt in Los Angeles today. Find other playdates HERE.
Also coming this fall from Cohen Media is a loving celebration of Buster Keaton by Peter Bogdanovich called The Great Buster. It covers familiar ground but also incorporates details—and some rare footage—that should satisfy even the pickiest Keatonite. (Full disclosure: I appear in the film as a talking head, putting me in the heady company of Quentin Tarantino and Werner Herzog, not to mention Damfinos founder Patty Tobias.) I loved watching this with an audience at Telluride, because that’s how silent comedy really comes to life. The movie opens in theaters October 5, carrying with it an award from the Venice Film Festival for Best Documentary on Cinema.
I’m sorry I didn’t get to see everything I wanted to at Telluride, including Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael but I’m sure it will become available in due course.
But I do want to mention another film I just caught up with on DVD: Tony Zierra’s Filmworker, the incredible-but-true story of a talented classical actor named Leon Vitali who wound up giving his life over to his hero, director Stanley Kubrick. He tackled so many varied jobs for his boss—who never thought him incapable of doing anything—that he listed his job on a government form as “filmworker.” Leon tells his story quite well, aided and abetted by Kubrick colleagues including actors Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, and the late R. Lee Ermey, who made his debut as the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. The new DVD from Kino Lorber includes a bonus conversation between Vitali and the documentary filmmaker. You can also stream it on a variety of outlets and it’s well worth doing. I hate to risk overusing the word but Vitali’s story is unique.
And Steve Rubin, who has written definitive behind-the-scenes articles on fantasy, horror and sci-fi classics, penned the screenplay for a DIY documentary called The Coolest Guy Movie Ever: Return to the Scene of The Great Escape. Director Christophe Espenan enlisted Steve’s help to tell the background story of this enduring action favorite, which consists in large part of an enthusiastic crew returning to Bavaria and identifying filming locations. If you’re not a major fan of the movie you may find some of this minutiae a bit dull, but the fanboy quotient is sincere. Best of all, there are reminiscences from James Garner, James Coburn, and second-unit director Robert Relyea (who wore many hats on this picture) that help bring the experience of making The Great Escape to life. It’s an hour long; you can stream or purchase it on Amazon or from its distributor, Virgil Films.